Emotions, change are now the overflowing life of Chicago bartender Joe Lewis

Mon. April 27, 2020 8:39 AM by Ross Forman

Joe Lewis is the epitome of every bartender, waiter and literally millions of others now out-of-work due to the stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19.

His emotions over the past month have been strong, very real.

"At first there was panic, with me sitting at my desk trying to figure out every option, charting and making what felt like thousands of lists, all while the checking the news only to panic harder," said Lewis, who lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood and is a bartender at Berlin Nightclub in Boystown.

"Then the fear set in from the uncertainty and I stress-ate a pan of brownies in one sitting, and then downed all of my quarantine snacks. The fear intensified because I work in such a high-exposure environment that I had already been exposed and could possibly expose others.

"Helplessness hit when so many people I know started to lose loved ones and others lost their sense of smell (and/or) taste, (which are) symptoms, with COVID-19 tests coming back with positive results, and there was only so much I could do for any of them. 

"Feelings of hope didn't come in until I was able to nail down a plan."

But there certainly was a bottle-full of nervousness and more.

Lewis lost his main source of income, and multiple side hustles, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And everything stopped at once.

He also wasn't able to continue his gym-centered New Year's Resolution.

And socializing, often through work, went silent.

"If nothing else, it's giving me time to get everything else in my life in order. I've had a rough couple of years and now I can catch up," Lewis said. "I've worked for quite some time to find a place where I feel comfortable working in Boystown and stayed on my grind to secure it along with the shows I help produce, (such as) GeekHaus. (The stay-at-home order) really forced me to find creative solutions, and fast. Money has been such a control for all of my life and to have that thrown into limbo felt like a gun to the head. I've had my whole world fall apart before and am determined to not see it that way this time around."

Lewis, who was born Germany and raised in Georgia, has lived in Chicago for more than 12 years. He has now switched his nightly life to The Joe Show, with comedy and more through his drag alter-ego, @JoMaMaFunny. Plus, on April 15, he will appear on WTF Cyber Stupidity at 9 p.m. on the Instagram of @danikabonets.

Video chats are now commonplace – for Lewis and millions of others around the world.

"My self-care plan has been working to keep my emotions in check and, after finally getting unemployment straightened out and The Joe Show up and running, I wake up feeling hopeful again, and have been able to produce art, (too)."

Lewis' at-home life is now a mix of self-care, self-improvement and self-sustaining activities. "At any given time I could be deep conditioning my hair, working on a dress, picking out the color palette for my next painting, listening to a therapy podcast, thinking of new digital content ideas, or waiting for (a meal) to finish cooking. Also, I'm really into candles right now and am finally finishing the pile of books I have beside my bed," he said.

Lewis said he learned the importance of asking for help, which definitely was a learned skill. "I have no trouble asking for help on behalf of someone else, in fact it's way easier," he said. "Part of my action plan now is to find new ways to earn income without feeling like I'm getting a handout."

He delivers The Joe Show (@TheJoeShow2Night) every night.

Plus, GeekHaus Digitized is April 24.

He also is selling his art, which he's been producing during the day, on his website: joelewiscreative.com and @JoeLewisCreative (Instagram and Facebook). 

"Without the capabilities provided by the Internet, I don't think I could have made any of this possible," he said.

"This whole experience has just reinforced that I'm a total ham," he said. "I was telling a friend and co-worker the other day that it has been nice to be soft for a while. In the old world, I found myself being defensive and compelled to go on the attack or to give in out of anxiety, but this has been humbling and allowed the me that has been under all that to come out and play.

"Also I learned how to stream using the Streamlabs OBS application paired with twitch, and the ins and outs of both Facebook and Instagram for live viewing. Oh and there's this whole program called Discord that's a lot like Skype and helps you play jackbox.tv games with friends."

"Using The Joe Show (platform and exposure), I'm able to bring awareness to so many funds and charities that are in need. I pair a cocktail/character with the charity and post the link with the video. Most of the bars and restaurants in Chicago have one, but I've been focusing my efforts on the queer community. If you just google a local restaurant/ bar/ nightclub and GoFundMe or checkout their Facebook page, you can find a link and help support their fundraising efforts. 

"My next one is for INF, the Illinois Nursing Foundation. As healthcare workers need all of our support right now, many of my family members are in healthcare, and every cent helps."

Lewis added: "(The) best case (scenario) is, we all get through this stronger and more prepared for the future. The worst case ...I prepare for the worst, but I also try to not give it space to exist. After losing 12 people over a year and a half I've learned you can't give the worst agency over your actions. It has to be kept in check.

"I'm just hoping that when this all over that we don't forget it and we don't lose this sense of community."

Related: A list of relief funds for Boystown bars, restaurants and employees

Chicago LGBTQ COVID-19 Resources